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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

More than one capybara

Capybara soaks up the sun at High Park zoo. Capybara are the world’s largest rodents. They live around wetlands and swampy areas in South America. They’re herbivores, and can weigh as much as 140 pounds. 

In one of this week's weirder news stories, the Toronto Police tweeted this:

ADVISORY High Park Zoo - 2 Capybara have escaped their pens and are in the park. If seen please call @TPS11Div 4168081100 ^cb

Yes, police departments in other cities are preoccupied with chasing bad guys, but here they're after giant rodents. Last year a peregrinating peacock was on the lam from the same zoo; I tell  you life is thrilling in Toronto's criminal underworld. 

What intrigued me about this, though, was the fact that the police alert and subsequent news stories used "capybara" rather than "capybaras" as the plural of "capybara". I know, I know, the story is exciting enough already without the added fillip of variant plurals, but I can't help myself. (In its tweet, the Toronto Zoo used the plural "capybara's", but the less said about that the better.)

The name comes from Tupi kapiʔiwara, from kapíʔi (grass, brush) + -wara (eater). Tupi is a language family of South America, from south of the Amazon.
Although some dictionaries mention the invariable plural "capybara" before "capybaras", corpus evidence, and searches on sites such as the Smithsonian and various zoos suggest that "capybaras" is more common.  I don't know why we would choose to make the plural the same as the singular, as we don't do this for other rodents except, sometimes, beaver(s) (unlike members of the deer family, see this post about "moose"). I don't know what the plural is in Tupi but it really doesn't matter. 

Personally, I like "capybaras". If any of you know of any reason why the plural should be "capybara" instead, speak now.

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  1. Thank you for clarifying that capybara is a tatpurusha.

  2. I think the question of how to pluralise capybara actually can be found in Tupi morphology: add 'eta'(many) to make 'capybareta'.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.